a fragment of the nortown theater organ pipe screen found nearly a decade after theater's demolition

early 20th century movie-going was once a wildly popular excursion in which a nickel could purchase entrance to an elaborate architecture housing atmospheric settings, variety of entertainment and, importantly, an escape from the heat. a look to the ornament and interior décor of long-gone movie palaces is informative, making vivid the novelty and respite theaters provided, marked by competing themes dramatizing faraway or fantastical locales.

a significant non-extant theater in the west ridge neighborhood was the nortown theater, designed by james pridmore for balaban & katz during the height of the depression. during its construction, a 1930 chicago tribune column dubbed the nortown theater chicago’s “newest talkie temple” and described it as unconventional for having a seascape effect. in fact it claimed to be the first theater in the country to have a “marine treatment.” an early photo of the theater’s exterior shows an advertisement hand-painted on the brick on the building’s side, “refreshing as the sea / 2500 seats / open in march.” the audience would be placed in a courtyard garden overlooking the ocean, with lighthouse beam effects and passing ships. plaster relief and murals alike depicted sea horses, mermaids and aquatic life (the founder of the theatre historical society would much later dub the nortown “king neptune gothic atmospheric” in style). james pridmore even commissioned an astronomy professor at the illinois institute of technology to duplicate a constellation that would be visible during the expected opening date of the theater (among other starry sky projections on the azure ceiling-sky). the gesture helps one imagine the anticipation surrounding the theater’s opening, and the originality of the theme.

the nortown was complete with a 3/15 wurlitzer organ, described as having a “curiously moorish console.” the instrument is a curious artifact of the era just prior to “talkies,” when live music often accompanied stage acts or tracked silent films. the wurlitzer in particular innovated on brasher pipe organs and proved to be a high-caliber one-man instrument, capable of transmitting all kinds of sound effects and instrument noises in a wider breadth of tones. the wurlitzer also deviated from earlier pipe organs in that it used low-voltage electricity instead of mechanical linkages to transmit action from the organ keys to the pipes. this meant the console, with its player, could sit at any distance from the pipes. it became common for the console to sit on an elevator platform before the stage, low in the orchestra pit (and often rising to stage height for dramatic effect). the pipe components were commonly placed high in the auditorium in chambers that could be covered by shades, which could be opened and closed like venetian blinds by use of a pedal. the screens could in turn contribute to effecting the volume by dampening the sound to a whisper when closed and swelling louder as it was unveiled.

i’d wished so badly to actually see and handle the screens i found in images - long before it was transformed into a triplex, and the auditorium split in half by a concrete deck. by the time the wrecking machines arrived and i was let loose to document and deconstruct the ornament i was sickened by how badly the theater was stripped of most of its character, with only scattered remnants of ornamental plaster and the stars embedded in the sky to offer an indication of what existed here long ago. i looked everywhere for those screens, hoping they had been tossed aside, thrown in the attic, or buried in the basement.

in fact, many years after the salvage, i happily discovered an artifact related to this history. as i was sifting through piles of building remnants collected over the years, i opened a box containing an unusual oversized hand-stitched fish with air bubbles. the fragment of textile was removed from the nortown’s original organ screen, which, true to its theme, featured an elaborately gilded and appliquéd nautical scene. the colorful curtain hung high above the organ, concealing its pipework with massive fish nets filled with flashy sea creatures and plant life bedecked in sequins and stitched in place. though i was perplexed as to why this fish was separated from the entire curtain scene, i was thrilled to handle an actual piece of the organ screen, an artifact that serves as a partial record of the scale and craft of the original décor. even as i was reminded of a salvage i’ve purposely put out of my mind, it reinvigorated my hope to fill in the blanks of its material, maker and method. the solitary fish is an iconic patch of the theater’s visual makeup, but also points to a bygone soundscape, when the organ might well have played ocean sound effects to enraptured movie-goers.

the delicate piece is constructed from two layers of cotton fabric in brown tones, interwoven on the top layer with metallic gold fiber (lending the fish an incandescent glow to its scales). decorative black machine-embroidered piping delineates the eyes, mouth, fins and spotted pattern of the body. the tail and lower fin also feature heavily degraded silk accents in a salmon orange and green-grey (perhaps at one point slightly golden in finish as well). the opposite side of the fish showcases the netting to which it was originally affixed, which made up the rest of the organ curtain, crocheted from a golden yellow cotton thread, and laden with high-quality miniature paillettes/sequins. several air bubbles in the same fabric/embroidery scheme are visible, extending upward from the fish's mouth.

the bldg. 51 collection holds a sizable collection of artifacts from the theater, and extensive documentation on the salvage, including major architectural ornament ornament (e.g., cast iron balusters, exterior terra cotta, electric "stars," plaster frieze panels, etc.) that was methodically extracted when the building was demolished by dmd wrecking during the summer and early fall of 2009.

Leave a Reply

Sorry, you must be logged in to post a comment.

From the blog